Two of the best days of my life involved snorkeling with a colony of friendly sea lions. The first, many years ago, was in the Galapagos. The second, a few weeks ago, was at Los Islotes, a small cluster of tiny islands just north of Isla Espíritu Santo in Mexico’s Baja California Sur. The only way I can describe sharing the water with these amazing marine mammals is pure joy. I was completely mesmerized as they surrounded us with their graceful acrobatics. I’m thrilled to be including photos of this intensely uplifting experience (courtesy of fellow guests and ROW Sea Kayak Adventures).
Snorkeling at Los Islotes was part of our 5-day Isla Espíritu Santo kayaking trip with ROW Sea Kayak Adventures. While many people visit the sea lion colony as a day trip from La Paz (about a one hour boat ride), our extended stay at beautiful Isla Espíritu Santo was an extra special experience. Plus, with our campsite only 5-10 minutes away from Los Islotes, we had the advantage of getting to the sea lion colony before other groups. And, I’m sure we had the best guide: Ruben Sandoval, an awesome free driver and all around good guy. While we flailed—trying to get close to, or avoid the sea lions— Ruben swam elegantly among them, taking photos and videos.
Los Islotes is the southernmost breeding ground of the California Sea Lion in the northern hemisphere. Various sources put the population of the Los Islotes colony at about 400, but it varies by season. It’s primarily the juveniles that interact in the water with tourists and researchers. They have become habituated to the pangas (local open boats) and to the excited but clumsy visiting swimmers. The 700-pound bulls and much smaller adult females look on from the rocks.
So, is it safe to swim with the Los Islotes sea lions? The simple answer is generally yes, as long as you remember that they are unpredictable, wild animals and you follow the rules: don’t touch, don’t provoke, hands to yourself, stay a good distance from the rocks. We were told that the Los Islotes sea lions are not aggressive and will warn you off with a burst of bubbles.
The sea lion pups are playful and curious creatures. They like to swim quickly toward you and dart away at the last minute. Sometimes they nudge you, or even pull on a fin. Although they are young, they are surprisingly large. All this can be a tad scary especially for people unaccustomed to snorkeling and sharing the water with big animals. But, based on our tour, which included several novice snorkelers, apprehension is quickly displaced by awe. There’s nothing like seeing those huge puppy eyes close up, and watching their crazy underwater maneuverability. The worst thing that’s likely to happen is swallowing water because of your ear to ear grin.
The montage above gives you a glimpse of the underwater performance of the Los Islotes sea lions. They spin, and swirl, and backflip with grace, power, and ease. It is entertaining and unforgettable.
If you can tear yourself away from the sea lions there’s a cave passageway that is fun to swim through. You’ll see lots of tropical fish and wonderful sea creatures. Keep your eyes open for beautifully patterned morays peeking out of crevices (don’t worry, they’re shy).
By the way, if you’re pondering about whether to scuba dive or snorkel at Los Islotes, I recommend you save your money and stick to snorkeling. Although I love to scuba dive, I feel that you can see just as much, maybe more, looking down from the surface. The site is shallow, the pups swim freely at all depths, and they don’t seem to discriminate in their attention to snorkelers versus divers.
Even if you decide not to go into the water, there’s lots of surface and above water activity. The juveniles bob up and down around the boats, particularly if someone splashes the surface of the water. The giant bulls on the rocky ledges, and their assertive barks are sights and sounds to behold. Plus, the water around Los Islotes and Espíritu Santo teems with dolphins, flying mobula rays, and whales during certain seasons.
My one niggling concern is the long term impact on the sea lion colony of human disturbances caused by increasing ecotourism in Baja California Sur. The good news is that there is much research taking place, and that the population at Los Islotes remains very healthy. If you go, do your research and select a company like ROW Sea Kayak Adventures that adheres to regulations and is committed to the safety and well-being of humans and marine life. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.